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Crazy Henry Baldwin, the Mentally Ill Supreme Court Justice

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In the history of the United States, only 120 people have served on the Supreme Court. Some suffered from mental illness. Henry Baldwin was one of them.

In 1833, Baldwin missed an entire term of the court after his hospitalization for “incurable lunacy.” Yet he returned in 1834 and served 12 more years until his death.

Henry Baldwin

His colleagues thought the cure hadn’t worked. They found him disruptive, obnoxious and odd. The court reporter wrote that five people had called him crazy – in one day.

Baldwin wasn’t the only Supreme Court justice who stayed well past his sell-by date. During the first century of the court, at least four suffered from mental impairment. And in the last 20th century, at least 11 have.

Family Connections

He was born in New Haven, Conn., on Jan. 4, 1780, the son of Michael Baldwin and his second wife, Theodora Walcott.

Michael Baldwin was a blacksmith, but one with social status. The Baldwin family had aristocratic English roots, having descended from William the Conqueror and five kings of Jerusalem.

Henry Baldwin’s great-grandfather was also a blacksmith in Guilford

Michael, born in Guilford, Conn., moved his family to New Haven to educate his five sons. Young men could do well in the young United States with credentials and connections. It didn’t hurt to tolerate slavery and violence against Indians.

Michael’s sons played prominent roles in developing Georgia, Ohio and western Pennsylvania.  Abraham signed the U.S. Constitution, founded the University of Georgia and served in the U.S. Senate. Michael, Jr., served as speaker of the House of Representatives of the first Ohio Legislature.

Abraham Baldwin

Michael’s daughters did well, too. Ruth married poet and diplomat Joel Barlow, who established the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Clara married Col. George Bomford, chief of ordnance for the U.S. Army and inventor of the modern long-range cannon.

Henry got rich and politically powerful in western Pennsylvania, where people called him the “Pride of Pittsburgh.”

Henry Baldwin

As a boy Henry Baldwin drove a cart for James Hillhouse, planting New Haven’s elm trees. He attended the Hopkins School and then Yale, where he graduated at the age of 17. He then went on to study law at Litchfield Law School under Tapping Reeve.

Litchfield Law School from a 1906 postcard

Like his brothers, Henry sought his fortune outside of his native New England. He read law in Philadelphia under Alexander Dallas, later U.S. Treasury Secretary. He then settled in Pittsburgh, married and made a fortune investing in turnpikes, land and iron furnaces while practicing law. He’d study late into the night puffing incessantly on small black Spanish cigars.

In a 1949 biography, M. Flavia Taylor, wrote that his friend Henry Marie Brackenridge remembered him as “an excellent scholar, deeply read, and a rapid, warm, and cogent speaker, yet at the same time logical and subtle.”

“Cogent” was not a word people applied to Henry Baldwin later in life.

Henry Baldwin, Meteor

Even as he climbed to the commanding heights of politics and finance in western Pennsylvania, he showed hints of problems to come. He was also a quarrelsome prankster who, when angered, grew vindictive and profane.

He launched his legal practice on horseback, traveling the western Pennsylvania circuit courts with a coterie of like-minded young lawyers. They stayed at country taverns, where Henry played practical jokes on his friends. They did not reciprocate.

View of the City of Pittsburgh from near Saw Mill Run, 1850

In 1802 he married his third cousin, Mariana Norton. She died about a year later, after giving birth to his only child, Henry Baldwin, Jr. In 1805 he remarried well — Sally Ellicott was the daughter of Maj. Andrew Ellicott, a prominent land surveyor.

But before his second marriage, he had nearly gotten killed in a duel over a young lady.

The duel took place on a lot in Pittsburgh. Baldwin and Isaac Meeson agreed to fight until one was incapacitated or dead. Meeson’s ball struck a silver dollar in Baldwin’s vest pocket, and he fell, thinking he was done for. But he was just bleeding, and they reloaded their pistols. Then Judge James Riddle rode up with a posse and stopped the fun.


Henry Baldwin and two lawyer friends, Tarleton Bates and Walter Forward, ran a newspaper, the Tree of Liberty, to support the Democrat-Republican Party. Bates ended up getting killed in a duel after assaulting a rival newspaper editor with a whip.

Tree of Liberty

Baldwin, a diligent networker, served as president of the Pittsburgh Colonization Society, to send slaves back to Africa. He also served on the boards of the Pittsburgh Permanent Library Company and the Harmony Seminary for Young Ladies. He was a grand master of the Masonic Lodge, a turnpike commissioner and a member of the Pittsburgh Public Safety Committee during the War of 1812.

By then he was rich. In 1813 he bought 2,023 acres of land in Allegheny County for $32,000 and built a summer home there. He invested in three iron furnaces, including the Union Rolling Mill, the biggest in the west.

After the War of 1812, cheap European imports began to flood the United States, undercutting domestic manufactured products. Baldwin became an ardent protectionist. He advocated high tariffs to protect the country’s fledgling industries as well as his own investments. In 1816, he ran for Congress and won.

Old Hickory

Something happened during his brief tenure in the House of Representatives that would put him on the Supreme Court. In North Florida, Gen. Andrew Jackson was attacking Seminole villages and pushing the Indians south. During that conflict, Jackson captured and executed two British subjects defending the Indians. The British and Spanish governments objected, and Congress investigated Jackson’s actions. Henry Baldwin defended Jackson when others were digging his political grave. The two formed a close, if up-and-down, friendship.

Andrew Jackson

Then in 1822, Henry Baldwin resigned from Congress because of a severe, but unspecified, illness.

He then returned to his civic and business activities in Pittsburgh. When Jackson ran for president, Baldwin campaigned for him. In the 1828 campaign, western Pennsylvania went Jackson mad. The state went two-to-one for Old Hickory.

Baldwin’s supporters pressured Jackson to appoint him Treasury Secretary, but Vice President John C. Calhoun stood in his way. He found Baldwin’s protectionism odious. Instead, Jackson named him U.S. attorney in Pennsylvania as a consolation prize.

Bushrod Washington

Then in late 1829, Supreme Court Associate Justice Bushrod Washington died. On Jan. 5, 1830, Jackson nominated Baldwin to replace him, and the next day the Senate voted him in.

He was 50, and on the downward side of his life’s curve.

Crazy Henry Baldwin

Chief Justice John Marshall had tried to cultivate consensus and collegiality on the high court.

Henry Baldwin showed up like a skunk at a garden party. And then he sprayed the hors d’oeuvres.

He criticized the expansion of the court’s powers and frequently broke with protocol by writing dissenting opinions – which he turned in late. He brought coffee and donuts into the courtroom, enough to convince one of his colleagues he was crazy, according to historian Robert Ilisevich. Baldwin deliberately ignored proper rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization.

Baldwin-Reynolds House in Meadville, Pa. Henry Baldwin built it as a summer home.

Some of his eccentricities seemed harmless, like passing out candy to children in the street and sitting in a darkened room. More troublesome, though, were his violent outbursts, insults and faulty reasoning.

His detractors called his legal opinions inconsistent, incoherent and unconvincing. He claimed to abhor slavery but always upheld its legality. And he supported Jackson in his Indian removal campaign.

In December of 1832 reports from Philadelphia described how “the Honorable Judge Baldwin was seized today with a fit of derangement.”‘ Days later Daniel Webster told a friend about “the breaking out of Judge Baldwin’s insanity.” Someone else wrote, “Judge Baldwin is out of his wits.”

Baldwin soon decided he hated the job. Within 18 months of his appointment, he threatened to leave.

Downward Slide

In the spring of 1833, Justice Joseph Story told Circuit Judge Joseph Hopkinson, “I am sure he cannot be sane.” The only charitable view Story said he could take was that he was partially deranged at all times.

Justice Joseph Story

Henry Baldwin missed the entire term of the court that year. He was hospitalized for what was called “incurable lunacy.”

Nevertheless, Baldwin returned to the court the next year. He stayed for 11 more years until his death in 1844.

His friends defended him by saying that he always had a crazy sense of humor, played practical jokes and hated formality and pomposity.

But in 1838 the Supreme Court’s Reporter of Decisions, Richard Peters, Jr., told Judge Hopkinson that most courtroom observers of Baldwin agreed that “his mind is out of order. I have heard in one day not less than five persons … say ‘he is crazy’.”

Henry Baldwin died on April 21, 1844, at the age of 64.

Time To Go

Baldwin wasn’t the first Supreme Court justice to lose his mental faculties, and he certainly wasn’t the last.

William Cushing, one of the original associate justices, suffered the loss of his mental faculties during his last years on the bench. After paralysis struck Robert Grier in 1867, his mental competency deteriorated. But he stayed on until 1870, when his colleagues finally forced him to resign.

William Cushing

In 1880, Justice Samuel Miller described fellow justice Nathan Clifford as a “babbling idiot,” but Clifford stayed on for another nine months.  Justice Stephen Field’s mind began to fail well before he retired, But he stayed on the court two years after he became mentally incapacitated.

Justice Henry Billings Brown, one of Field’s colleagues, noted, “Of the four men of our Court who lost their minds, all of them lost them while they were still upon the Bench.”

In the 20th century, historian David Garrow identified at least 11 judges who probably should have stepped down because they’d grown feeble-minded.

Hugo Black

Frank Murphy had to be hospitalized for his addiction to narcotics in 1947 but stayed on the bench. Charles Whittaker had a nervous breakdown. William O. Douglas wouldn’t retire even though he’d suffered a severe stroke in 1974. And Thurgood Marshall and Hugo Black stayed well past the time their minds began to slip.

“The historical evidence convincingly demonstrates that mental decrepitude among aging justices is a persistently recurring problem that merits serious attention,” wrote Garrow.

End Notes

With thanks to R.D. Ilisevich, (1996). Henry Baldwin and Andrew Jackson: A Political Relationship in Trust? The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography120(1/2), 37–60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093015. And to David J. Garrow, “Mental Decrepitude on the U.S. Supreme Court: The Historical Case for a 28th Amendment.” The University of Chicago Law Review 67, no. 4 (2000): 995–1087. https://doi.org/10.2307/1600454. And to M. Flavia Taylor, “The Political and Civic Career of Henry Baldwin, 1799-1830,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Volume 24, Number 1, March 1941, 37-50, https://journals.psu.edu/wph/article/view/2186/2019.

Images: Baldwin-Reynolds House By CtMh67810 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77867510. Pittsburgh Queen, J. F., Wall, W. C. & Wagner & M’Guigan, P. View of the city of Pittsburgh from near Saw Mill Run / painted by W.C. Wall ; on stone by James Queen ; lith. of Wagner & McGuigan, No. 100, Chesnut Street, Philada. Pennsylvania Pittsburgh, None. [Philadelphia: wagner & mcguigan, no. 100, chesnut street, between 1850 and 1857] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014648392/. Joseph Story By Brady, M. B. Joseph Story, half-length portrait, facing front. , None. [Between 1844 and 1845] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2004664058/.



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